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This Day in History: Rhode Island reluctantly ratifies Constitution

On this day in 1788, a legislative committee in Rhode Island reports that the United States Constitution had been rejected by the state.

Rhode Island emphatically did NOT want to join the new United States of America!

Results of the 1789 presidential election. The New York legislature couldn’t decide how to allocate its electors, so the state lost its vote. North Carolina didn’t vote because it wasn’t yet a state, but it joined soon afterwards. Rhode Island, as discussed, was a bit more stubborn.

Perhaps you know that Rhode Island was sometimes referred to as Rogues' Island? Well, no wonder. The state was fiercely independent in just about every way possible.

Would you believe that it couldn’t even reject the Constitution in the “right” way?!?

States were supposed to consider the Constitution through state ratifying conventions, but Rhode Island’s General Assembly didn’t comply. Instead, it submitted the question to all freemen and freeholders of the state via referendum.

Some people were pretty upset about this legislative decision, so they boycotted the vote. Thus, less than half of all eligible voters participated in the balloting on March 24.

Maybe the results of that vote were unsurprising, given the trends in Rhode Island.

Free-thinking Rhode Island had been on the early side of most decisions during the Revolution: As early as 1774, it was calling for a general congress with the intent of resisting British policies. It was among the first to renounce allegiance to King George III, and it was the first to appoint delegates to a Continental Congress. But once freedom was won, Rhode Island’s independent streak began to work in the opposite direction: Rhode Island did not want to replace the Articles of Confederation. It didn’t trust the prospect of a new national government, and it did not send delegates to the Constitutional Convention. The state would eventually ratify the Constitution, but not until it was basically backed into a corner.

Rhode Island’s residents had several concerns about the Constitution, but mostly they just liked to do their own thing. They feared that a centralized national government would overwhelm local decision-making. And perhaps they were particularly concerned about the issue of paper money. Rhode Island was then issuing state currency via some dubious methods. Such a process could not work under the Constitution, which prohibits states from issuing paper money.

Rhode Island finally caved, more than a year after George Washington had been inaugurated. By then, the little state was surrounded by all the other states in the Union. Rhode Island could choose to be a part of that Union or it could be treated like a small, foreign country. It chose the former—but only barely. The state ratifying convention approved the Constitution by a margin of just 2 votes on May 29, 1790.

The defiant Rogues' Island had finally entered the United States, but it was the last of the original 13 colonies to do so.

Primary Sources

  • Historical Highlights: Rhode Island’s Ratification of the Constitution May 29, 1790 (U.S. House of Representatives: History, Art, & Archives website)

  • Jonathan Elliot, The Debates in the Several State Conventions of the Adoption of the Federal Constitution (1827) (reprinted HERE)

  • Letter from the Governor of Rhode Island to the President of Congress (Apr. 5, 1788) (p. 291)

  • Pauline Maier, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 (2010)

  • The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution (John P. Kaminski et al. 2011) (Vol. XXIV: Rhode Island).



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